When it comes to telling the story of sustainability, the packaging industry has historically remained in the limelight, leaving its customers to face consumers, such as retailers and brands, both write the script and deliver the lines on waste, recycling and circularity.
But now, under increasing pressure from NGOs and other lobby groups to reduce waste, the sector must take center stage and speak directly to its audiences.
In March, for example, the industry body Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE) published The beverage cartons roadmap to 2030 and beyond. This document promises that alliance members “will provide the most sustainable packaging for resilient food supply systems that is renewable, climate positive and circular.”
The industry is committed on several fronts, says CAE CEO Annick Carpentier. It is committed to “acting on all links of the value chain, from sustainable sourcing to climate impact and recycling. Increasing the collection and recycling of beverage cartons to reach rates of 90% and at least 70% respectively, as well as achieving decarbonisation in line with scientific targets aligned with 1.5 ° C, are examples of key objectives. “
Sharing the story of innovation
While collective action and communication, coordinated by professional organizations such as the CAE, is essential in addressing global issues such as the climate emergency, several players in the packaging industry have taken the initiative individually.
Many companies have “already reduced their use of packaging and increased the content of recycled materials in their products.” This is what Nick Brown, head of sustainable development at the multinational bottling company Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP), said, adding: “We recently announced the transition to 100% recycled plastic in our take-out bottles. We recognize that it is up to us to communicate this to our customers and other stakeholders.
CCEP is working on a whole series of innovations. They include projects with the startup CuRe Technology on a polyester waste recycling system; with Loop Industries to increase its supply of 100% recycled PET; and with Paboco to develop a paper bottle. These initiatives all feed into Coca-Cola’s ‘A World Without Waste’ environmental program, which aims to collect and recycle one bottle or can for every bottle sold by 2030. This initiative is promoted through messages on the packaging.
Whether they act together or individually, all industry players must shoulder their share of responsibility for the environmental crisis and do their fair share of work to resolve it. This is the view of Marco Ten Bruggencate, vice president of sales for packaging and specialty plastics for the EMEA region at chemical giant Dow.
“Gradual change is not enough. We need major innovations and investments to have a significant impact on the crisis, ”he says. “Our stakeholders expect a lot from us to drive the required transformational change. Only companies that make the necessary leaps will survive. “
Dow has set itself ambitious environmental goals. This includes making its packaging 100% reusable or recyclable by 2025; eliminate 1 million tonnes of plastic from the waste stream by 2030; and make the entire company carbon neutral by 2050.
Again, technological innovation goes hand in hand with public engagement. As Dow innovates with Shell to electrify steam cracker furnaces and reduce carbon dioxide emissions in plastic production, it also produces a podcast series called Unpackaged plastics. This one explores the themes of sustainability and, with the help of expert guests, explains some of the more complex technical issues.
Changing the corporate and consumer culture
Much of this activity is indicative of the cultural change that is taking place in industry and in the broader business world when it comes to sustainability. But change is needed across the counter as well, suggests Gladys Naylor, sustainability manager at Mondi Group, a producer of paper and other packaging materials.
“Reuse requires behavior change on the part of consumers, as convenience and weight reduction often have to be sacrificed to achieve sustainability,” she says. “It will be important to carefully consider the tradeoffs as we transform our business models. “
Jenny Wassenaar, vice president of sustainability at Trivium Packaging, believes the industry needs to develop more effective education campaigns to raise awareness of the problems it is trying to solve.
“We know, for example, that there is a gap between the actual recyclability of materials and consumers’ perception of their degree of recyclability,” she says. “Promoting sustainable packaging begins with objective communication to consumers about the difference between the recyclability and recycling rates of materials. “
In its annual report Green report on global purchasing, Trivium Packaging shares insightful research into consumers’ perspectives on sustainability and how they influence their buying habits. Just over two-thirds (67%) of respondents to its 2021 survey identified themselves as “environmentally aware”. The same proportion said they consider the recyclability of packaging to be important, while 64% said it is important for them that their purchases be made in packaging containing at least some of the recycled materials.
Adapt to win in an expanding market
Packaging remains a growing industry. According to a forecast released by Stratistics Market Research Consulting in November 2020, the global market value will grow from just under $ 930 billion (£ 670 billion) in 2019 to more than $ 1.65 billion by 2027.
It is up to everyone in the industry to truly earn their share of the huge financial rewards being offered, says Robert de Jong, CEO of Coda Group, a producer of compostable biopolymers.
“Every manufacturer needs to present innovations to brands and retailers,” he says. “We have to take on the challenges of the packaging industry. It cannot wait for legislation. We are all facing a sea change in sustainability – and those who don’t adapt will fall behind. “